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The immoral maze

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE - a man with arguably the most ridiculous name since his father, a lieutenant-colonel who was killed in action during the Second World War, from whom he inherited it.

But this is also a man who overcame morbid vertigo to conquer the north face of the Eiger; a man who became one of the first people to visit both poles by land; a man who ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents; a man who grew so infuriated by the pain of his frostbitten fingertips that he cut them off with a fretsaw in his garden shed.

Remarkable, unique, extraordinary: all overused words which somehow fall short when applied to Ranulph Fiennes. The rest of mankind - with a few exceptions - looks average in comparison, as it sits with its collective feet up in front of Midsomer Murders.

You might wonder how he ever survived his adventures or indeed why he embarked upon them in the first place. Missing the point is all too easy. Without risk-taking, there is no progress - just paralysis and stagnation. It’s a fundamental and forward-looking attribute. He could have played safe; he could have stayed in bed. Rather, he embraced those risks, reaping untold personal rewards into the bargain.

I wonder what he would make of ‘Taking Safe Decisions’, the latest glossy product from RSSB’s research sages. I cannot claim to have read every one of the 54 pages, broken down into three banquet-sized tomes. I suspect nobody else in full-time employment can either. Nor have I done more than peruse ‘The route to Taking Safe Decisions’ (31 pages) and ‘Public Attitudes to Safety on the Railways’ (57 pages) - both suggested supplementary reading. Perhaps insomniacs should try them.

That said, I have examined enough to understand why health ‘n’ safety has become a national embarrassment - costing an arm and a leg, creating mountains out of molehills and taking an eternity to arrive at blinding conclusions.

According to part one’s overview, duty holders take safety decisions for just two reasons: in order to “meet legal requirements” or because they make sense “from a commercial perspective”. Occasionally they might also act if, otherwise, corporate reputation could be compromised - in other words, on superficial grounds.

There’s no discussion of what’s right and proper; no mention of morality; ‘the voice of experience’ doesn’t feature much either. These are things you can’t plot on a diagram or measure through Cost Benefit Analysis, but crucial all-the-same when considering how (or whether) to preserve life.

To demonstrate the extent to which our industry has lost the plot, part three presents five worked examples of safety decision making in action. Or should that be inaction? Here’s just one of them.

Works are being carried out on a double track railway to prepare it for diversionary traffic. The stock involved has never used the route before and the driver’s seating position is slightly different. As a result, when stopping at some signals, the train must be brought to a halt further back to ensure clear visibility of the aspect. This has a knock-on effect. If the driver has to use the SPT, he might have to walk…standby for a shock…on the ballast for as much as ten yards before reaching sanctuary on the phone’s walkway. This fails the test of standard GC/RT5203.

The route will only be used as a detour on a handful of occasions each year and best estimates suggest that trains will stop at these signals just once annually. Nevertheless, a decision has to be made. What action should be taken?

Apparently, there are three possible options - do nothing; extend the walkway; or…wait for it…mount the phone on its own post and arrange for the signal to be resited. Next week, how to move the mountain so it’s closer to Mohammed.
Next week, how to move the mountain so it's closer to Mohammed.

You and I know that 90,000 trackworkers walk ten yards on ballast before breakfast. By now, you will already have made the right choice. But we know nothing - due process must take its course.

The report claims that “it is recognised (it doesn’t say by whom) that the issue requires expertise in risk assessment, civil engineering, signal engineering, operations and driving to be analysed effectively. A working group is formed, comprising project experts in risk assessment, civil engineering and signal engineering, the infrastructure manager’s operations manager and the relevant TOC’s driving manager”. Evidently none of these people have anything better to do with their time.

The working group carries out a hazard identification exercise which highlights two possible outcomes:

  • driver slips, trips or falls

  • driver stops at a location where the aspect is not as clear as it could be.

Then it’s vital to engage in “a brainstorming session” to expose any “exacerbating factors which could increase the risk of harm to the driver…” Perhaps the line is in a tunnel or the signal perched on a steep embankment. What if an eagle swoops low over the line, blasting a claxon as the driver alights?

After life has been put on hold for a few weeks, the working group comes to its conclusion: do nothing. But it must then present the rationale behind its recommendation to the project’s hazard review group for consideration. The duration of this latest cogitation period is not quantified but thankfully - after more naval-gazing than on Portsmouth’s quayside - the proposal is accepted as “equitable and defensible”. Thank the Lord!

This is what you get when you give an organisation £10million a year to spend on research. How much of RSSB’s programme is itself subjected to Cost Benefit Analysis, I wonder? It does the industry’s reputation no favours to be endorsing such a costly, long-winded, disproportionate and patently preposterous approach to safety decision making; simple safety decision making. Public preconceptions of waste and sloth will again be reinforced.

So then Sir Ranulph, are you planning a trip up Everest anytime soon? How about another polar expedition? The railway has a support structure ready and waiting to validate all the safety-critical decisions you’re yet to make. Let’s start with those bootlaces: twine, liquorice or spaghetti?

Story added 1st September 2008
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